Sun and Skin Safety: How to Protect Your Pets

July 2, 2010 | By Robin Wallace

Yes, pets get sunburn too! Before you hit the beach this weekend, learn how to prevent sun damage.

Romping about in the sun and basking in its warmth is a favorite among all pets, but it is a pastime which owners should regard with caution.

Skin cancers are the most common tumor in dogs, accounting for approximately one third of all tumors, according to Sun exposure can lead to specifically three types of cancer: squamous, basal cell carcinoma and hemangioma, said Dr. Heather Willis-Goulet, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist with Florida Veterinary Specialists.

“Just like humans, pets can also be at risk of developing skin cancer,” the Tampa-based veterinarian told Zootoo Pet News. “Exposure to direct sunlight can be significant contributing factor, but it is not the only cause of skin cancer in pets.”

The sun’s damage does not discriminate, although skin cancer often is found in middle-aged to older-aged dogs and certain breeds more than others.

“Light colored dogs with thin hair coats, such as Dalmatians, Pit bulls, pointers, bull terriers, and hairless breeds have a higher risk of developing skin cancer,” Dr. Willis-Goulet said. “Also, pets that are shaved [have a higher risk], whether it is a new summer clip or recently received medical treatment and now have an exposed, shaved area.”

But Dr. Willis-Goulet says sunburn can strike cats — even those who are indoor pets — particularly white cats who might like to sunbathe in windows.

Pet owners should also be careful with “sun worshippers,” those pets she describes as loving to sunbathe on their backs exposing their bellies.

Other vulnerable areas, which have low pigmentation, include: bridge of the nose, ear tips, skin around the lips.

Dr. Willis-Goulet strongly suggests owners apply sunscreen to their sun-exposed pets, citing that typically those safe for babies can be used on pets, “but if they do lick a lot, then it is toxic so you should get one specifically for pets.”

But she levied some insight that pet sunscreen labels are not equal to human-marketed sunscreens.

“One of the problems with pet sunscreens is that they don’t have a very clear label for SPF’s. Some of them don’t because the FDA hasn’t established and tested these ratings for pets,” Dr. Willis-Goulet explained.

Most importantly, though, Dr. Willis-Goulet says pet owners should adjust their mindset about pets and the sun.

“They think because humans can tolerate it, that their pets can tolerate it, too,” Dr. Willis-Goulet said. “But a big mistake in thinking is that because your dog or cat has hair that they are not going to get sunburned.”

Signs and symptoms of sunburn and sun damage include changes in skin color, redness, and skin changes that look like blackheads. These changes could potentially be pre-cancerous and should be checked by your veterinarian.

Some of Dr. Willis-Goulet’s tips:

1. Any time you could get sunburnt, so could your pet.

2. Avoid the peak sun hours — from 10am to 2pm.

3. Take your dog for a walk at dawn and dusk to stay out of the sun and heat.

4. Apply sunscreen on your pet every 4 to 6 hours and use 1 tablespoon per body area.

5. Keep your pet under an umbrella at the beach.

For more information about Florida Veterinary Specialists, visit

This story was originally published July 2, 2010 on